As often happened during the Cold War, the two superpowers leap frogged each other in terms of their projects. While the US plunged ahead with Operation Plowshares, the Soviet Union lagged behind in the business of peaceful nukes. A lot of this was for political reasons—the Soviets favored a comprehensive nuclear test ban and engaging in nuclear tests, even for peaceful purposes, would have undermined that position.
So the US had a good seven or eight year head start when the Soviets established Program No. 7: Nuclear Explosions for the National Economy. In a broad sense, Program No. 7 mirrored its US counterpart. It investigated the use of nuclear power for industrial applications such as excavation, oil and gas stimulation, canal building, and the discovery of novel isotopes.
While the Soviets took longer to adapt the use of peaceful nukes, when they did they went at it with an enthusiasm that made the US program look halfhearted. Much of this had to do with the political differences between the two countries; basically, the Soviets did not have to worry about such pesky things as public opinion or environmental concerns, two things that eventually killed Project Plowshares. Over a twenty-four year period, the Soviets detonated 122 nuclear devices at 115 test sites scattered throughout the Soviet Union.
The Soviet version of Project Plowshares came to an end in 1989 when the Soviets imposed a moratorium on nuclear explosions—including those for peaceful purposes—on themselves. This was in support of a Soviet call for a world wide ban on weapons testing. Not long later, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Soviet nuclear program was no more, ending any chance that Program 7 would be resurrected.
Since Program 7 was in broad strokes similar to its US counterpart, we will not go into as great a detail describing its ins and outs. Instead, we will focus on two specific aspects of the program, one that reared its head in a surprising way in recent years: Chagan, which birthed a radioactive lake, and the use of nukes on four occasions to attempt to stop runaway gas well leaks.
The Soviets kicked off their peaceful nuclear program in 1965 with the Chagan test, a near copy of the US Sedan test. The test was conducted at the Semipalatinsk Test Range in what is now Kazakhstan. The device detonated was a low-radiation thermonuclear device with a primary fission device yielding 5-7 kilotons. The remainder of the device’s 140 kiloton yield would come from clean fusion fuels, likely lithium and deuterium. The device was sunk about 178 meters below the surface of the dry bed of the Chagan River. The lip of the resulting crater was expected to form a dam when the river reached its highest flow period early the next spring.Once the bomb was detonated, it formed a crater with a diameter of 408 meters and a depth of 100 meters. Bulldozers were used to make a channel through the lip of the crater so the river could flow in.
The intention to build a dam using a nuke was ultimately a success—spring melt water flooded the crater and the reservoir behind it, forming what is known locally as Laka Chagan (also known as Lake Balapan.) They exist today largely in the same configuration as when they were excavated in 1965, although now with the addition of a water control structure that regulates the flow of water into the reservoir.
Insane as it sounds, the nuclear lakes were (and still are) put to practical uses, mostly to provide water for cattle grazing. While most would avoid swimming in a lake made by a nuclear bomb, Efrim P. Slavskiy, Minister of the Medium Machine Building Ministry, which oversaw the whole Soviet nuclear program, was the first to take a dip. No word on whether he contracted cancer from his ill-advised swim.
Interestingly enough, the Chagan test caused a bit of a stink in its day. While the device was designed to be low yield in terms of radioactive fallout, some of that inevitably escaped into the atmosphere. Some of this radiation was detected over Japan, in violation of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. The US asked the Soviet Union for an explanation, asking if this was the result of a high yield underground weapons test. The Soviets responded that the test was conducted far enough underground that the quantity of radioactive fallout should be miniscule and thus wouldn’t violate the test ban. After some back and forth, both sides dropped the issue and the Soviet Union went on to happily explode nukes throughout its interior for industrial purposes.
Nukes extinguish gas fires
While it sounds counter-intuitive, the Soviet Union discovered that thermonuclear weapons could be used to stop runaway fires at natural gas wells. The discovery came after an accident on December 1, 1965, when an accident occurred at well 11 at the Utrabalck gas field in Southern Uzebekistan. The fire occurred at a depth of 2450 meters. For three years, engineers tried various conventional techniques to stop the fire or plug the leak. But their efforts failed and the fire continued unabated, burning off 12 million cubic meters of gas a day.
After Program 7 began, authorities, at a loss to stop the massive leak, decided to try using a nuke to plug the stubborn leak. They drilled two 13.5 inch diameter holes at an angle toward the stricken well. The closest drill hole, hole 1c, came within 35 m of the main well at a depth of 1450m. The two holes neared each other in a layer of clay 200m thick. The hope was that the force of the explosion would pinch off the damaged well, stopping the leak.
Hole 1c was cooled in preparation for a specialized 30 kiloton nuclear device to be slid inside. The hole was cooled to insure the proper working of the device. The device was detonated and the force of the blast pinched off the well as expected, extinguishing the fire within seconds. This was proof of concept: the seemingly crazy idea of using nukes to extinguish gas fires worked surprisingly well. The technique was used successfully three more times in various oil fields around the Soviet Union.
The final attempt to seal a well using nukes occurred in 1981 in the European coast of Russia near the mouth of the Pechora River. Operators lost control of the well on November 28, 1980. It burnt off 2,600,00 cubic meters of gas every day. In an attempt to stop the leak, a 37.6 kiloton nuke was detonated at a depth of 1511 meters. While details are sketchy—Soviets weren’t well known for admitting to failures—the attempt appears to have failed. There’s no further documentation of efforts to cap the well.
Remarkably, every gas-capping attempt was “clean.” Meaning, no radiation leaked to the surface. All in all, the nuclear option appears to be a successful method to cap otherwise uncappable wells. However, the hazards and expense of using nuclear devices make it impractical for anything but the most dangerous leaks. Such a leak seemed to have occurred in 2010 during the now infamous Gulf Oil Spill, when a hole in a deep ocean oil well leaked millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. After several unsuccessful attempts to cap the well, the idea to use a nuclear device to fix the problem surfaced out of the outpouring of advice from bloggers, experts, and politicians.
Some championed the idea enthusiastically, but it was never seriously considered by the Obama administration for several reasons. One was that the Deep Horizon leak was fundamentally different than the ones encountered by Soviet engineers. It was crude oil, not natural gas, and taking place deep under the ocean, not underground. The Soviets never tested the effectiveness of nuclear well capping under those conditions. There was a real fear that the attempt would fail and the Gulf Coast would have an even bigger disaster on its hands; not just crude oil washing up on its shores, but radioactive crude oil. To use such an extreme measure without a reasonable expectation of safety, let alone success, would have been wildly irresponsible. While that sort of behavior might have flown during the Cold War, it does not today.
Besides all of that, the nuclear option was a political nonstarter to begin with. The US had pushed for a comprehensive test ban treaty, meant to end the development of nuclear weapons of all types, globally. President Obama was also pressing for new global treaties and rules to quell further development of nuclear arms, especially those under development by “rogue nations.” In an odd parallel to the Soviet union, who delayed its own peaceful nuclear program due to its advocating for a test ban treaty, the United States would have undermined its own position by detonating a nuclear weapon, even to stop a growing disaster. So, no one in the administration seriously considered the nuclear option, and the well was eventually capped by conventional means.
Broad, William J. “Nuclear Option on Gulf Oil Spill? No Way, US Says.” Nytimes.com. June 2, 2010. The New York Times. May 15, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/03/us/03nuke.html?_r=0
Nordyke, Milo D. “The Soviet Program for Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Explosions.” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. July 24, 1996.